XRCC, NINT partner on nanotechnology research

Canadian private-sector and public-sector research labs are getting together in a partnership focused on nanotechnology billed as breaking new ground in co-operation between business and government-backed researchers.

The Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC) in Mississauga, Ont., and the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) in Edmonton will collaborate on nanotechnology research projects. The National Research Council and the Alberta government, both of which along with the University of Alberta are backers of NINT, will join XRCC and NINT in providing about $4.5 million for the materials-based nanotechnology research over the next three years.

Hadi Mahabadi, vice-president and director of the Xerox Research Centre of Canada, said the partnership is unique because for the first time, Xerox will open up research directly related to its core business to outside researchers.

“Every company tries to protect their core business,” Mahabadi said, and that usually means businesses don’t do collaborative research in those areas because it would mean letting researchers from outside the company see what is going on in the corporate labs. “They are leery of exposing themselves,” agreed Nils Petersen, director general of NINT.

The five-year-old NINT has done other private-sector collaborations, but none involving work so close to a private partner’s core technology, Petersen said, and he hopes that openness can be a model for future collaboration with business.

“We opened our core business in this partnership for the first time,” Mahabadi said.

The joint research team will work on nanomaterials research meant to help Xerox develop new toners, inks and other materials useful in printing, which is its central business. Mahabadi said Xerox will retain intellectual property rights to the use of technology arising from the collaboration in printing, but the same materials might have other uses.

Particle research that helps produce better toners might also lead to new ways of applying dry coatings to car bodies, for instance. “One person could use it for toner, and the other person could use it for paint.”

NINT will be responsible for finding market opportunities to use the results of the joint research outside of Xerox’s areas of interest, though Petersen said he hopes to benefit from Xerox’s expertise in commercializing research. The partners will share revenues from such commercialization, with the actual split determined on a case-by-case basis, said Petersen.

XRCC has already established its credentials in nanotechnology research. Set up in 1974, the centre is one of four Xerox research centres worldwide and has the global mandate for materials research within the company. It has been doing nanotechnology research for several years and has developed EA Toner, a nanotechnology technique for making more cost-effective, environmentally efficient printer toner.

“Xerox is a major player in the nanotech field,” said Barry Gander, executive vice-president of the Canadian Advanced Technology Association (CATA) in Ottawa. “It is the first company that has developed and marketed a product based on nanotechnology, and in so doing has transformed competition across an entire field.”

Gander, whose organization promotes the interests of Canadian high-tech companies, said nanotechnology is a critical area for Canada. The National Research Council estimated five years ago that it will grow to be a $100-billion industry worldwide within a decade, he said, and “nanotech is the ultimate knowledge-based industry, one that frees countries from the restrictions of natural resources. The only resource that counts is education.”

The deal will lead to the hiring of six to 10 additional researchers, most of whom will work at NINT in Edmonton, said Mahabadi. XRCC currently employs more than 100 researchers, according to Mahabadi, and Petersen said NINT has approximately 200 people, of whom about 25 are principal scientists.

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